The cathedral of Monreale (part 4): the cloister

I had already spent two hours in the cathedral of Monreale and felt a bit saturated by all the beautiful art and architecture that I had seen there. Nevertheless, I decided to continue my tour of the complex by visiting the convent next to the cathedral. I had previously admired the splendid cloister from above, when I did a tour of the roof of the right aisle. The cloister seemed like a nice and quiet place, much unlike the bustling cathedral itself. Once I was down again, the situation had not changed much. Just a handful of tourists had bothered to visit the cloister and I was able to explore it at leisure. Admittedly, there were restoration works in progress, and the corridors were full of scaffolds, but I did not really care. After all, the biggest treasures of the cloister – the capitals of the double columns – were not at all hidden from view.

Cloister of Monreale.

As was already discussed in previous posts, the cathedral of Monreale was built between roughly 1174 and 1189. Construction activities were probably completed a few years after the death in the latter year of the founder of Monreale, the Sicilian king William II “the Good”. The king had founded an abbey of Benedictines next to the cathedral, and the monks that settled there lived according to the reformed rules laid down at Cluny, France, in the tenth century. In the Spring of 1176 a hundred monks arrived at the abbey under construction. They were originally from the abbey of La Cava, near Salerno, Campania. Their abbot automatically became bishop of Monreale and, as of 1183, archbishop, the result of a bull by Pope Lucius III (1181-1185).

Capital with the sirena bicaudata.

Cloister with Cosmatesque decorations.

The cloister is situated between the cathedral and the former dormitory of the monks. It is a mix of styles, with the various sources mentioning Romanesque, Arabic, Byzantine and Provençal elements. The garden in the centre measures 47 by 47 metres and is divided into four sections. Each section has a tree with a special (religious) significance. We see a fig tree (known from Genesis), a pomegranate tree (symbolising unity of the Church), an olive tree (peace) and a palm tree (life, glory and victory over death). Inside the cloister, in the southwest corner, there is a smaller cloister, the chiostrino. In the centre of it we find a fountain.

The cloister is composed of 26 arches with Arabic motifs on every side. The arches are supported by a total of 228 columns. In most cases these are double columns (pairs), but in the corners we find groups of four columns. Some of the columns are undecorated, but others have beautiful Cosmatesque decorations, much like the ones we know from the basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura in Rome. The capitals of the columns are truly magnificent. The artists who made them do not seem to have worked according to a fixed iconographic plan, and it should be noted that not all of the scenes we see are religious in nature. Apart from stories from the Old and New Testament we also for instance see mythological creatures such as the sirena bicaudata (two-tailed siren; image above), scenes from everyday life, knights, animals and plants. It is especially in the capitals that experts see Provençal influences. The result is in any case breathtaking.

Capital with the story of the expulsion from Paradise.

Capital with stories of Samson.

Capital with the story of the empty tomb.


  • Capitool travel guide Sicily (2019), p. 80-81;
  • John Julius Norwich, Sicily, chapter 4;
  • John Julius Norwich, The Kingdom in the Sun, p. 313-315;
  • Lisa Sciortino, Monreale. The cathedral, the mosaics, the cloister, p. 173-176;
  • Monreale – N1ShNW (

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